Anyone who had the kind of year Kanye West had — producing hits for Jay-Z and Alicia Keys plus 10 Grammy nominations and critical kudos for his multiplatinum debut “The College Dropout” (Roc-a-fella) — could be forgiven for strutting a bit. At the first show in American Express’ “Jam Sessions” series, simulcast on AOL and scheduled to run on A&E Feb. 27, the 27-year-old hyphenate was so self-confident in his talent and charisma that he pretty much winged his perf — and got away with it.
Backed by the band of opening act (and protege) John Legend, West’s hourlong set had its share of rough edges, but his energetic and generous performance more than compensated.
“Dropout” deftly mixes bootstrap success stories, genuine piety and a “where’s the party” spirit with production that swathes the beat in lush layers of guitars and keyboards, creating a sound that easily crosses over to mainstream auds. Although he was front and center for the bulk of Wednesday’s perf, West spent most of the set acting like a producer. He stopped the band twice during the introduction to “All Falls Down” because the groove wasn’t to his liking and repeated a hand-clap pattern he wanted for “Work Out Plan” until the crowd got it right. And he gave up almost a third of his time onstage to guests.
When the guests include Talib Kweli and Common, who joined West on an extended version of “Let’s Get High” (the latter introducing a song from his upcoming West-produced album, “Be”) and John Mayer, who added a suitably funky guitar line to “Jesus Walks,” no one really complained. Like a seasoned ringmaster, West kept the show moving at an enjoyably brisk pace.
That sense of lightness is the one thing John Legend was missing. Although his fine new Columbia album is titled “Lifted,” his perf was decidedly earthbound. Blessed with a classic grainy and sweet soul voice — it’s pitched somewhere between Steve Wonder and Curtis Mayfield — he remained a cool and distant stage presence.